|Breaking Open the Word|
|World & Nation|
October 1, 2008
Respect Life Sunday and our calling to the ‘Gospel of Life’
Exactly 10 years ago this fall, America’s bishops issued a pastoral letter called “Living the Gospel of Life.” Even a decade later, this is no ordinary Church text. I believed then, and I believe now, that it’s the best document ever issued by the U.S. bishops on the priorities of Catholic citizenship. In writing it, the bishops sought to apply Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”) to the American situation. The heart of their statement, paragraph No. 23, stresses that:
“Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the human person at all stages of life.
“But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. If we understand the human person as the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’—the living house of God—then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house’s foundation. These directly and immediately violate the human person’s most fundamental right—the right to life. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand. Such attacks cannot help but lull the social conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights” (emphasis in original).
This is why abortion is not merely one among many urgent issues, but rather the foundational one. It provides the cornerstone for a whole architecture of human dignity. When we revoke legal protection for unborn children, we violate the first and most important human right—the right to life itself. And once we do that, and then create a system of alibis to justify it, we begin to put every other human and civil right at risk.
This coming Sunday, Oct. 5, is national Respect Life Sunday. It’s a good moment to remember that over the past month we’ve had a couple of extraordinary witnesses to the preciousness of human life, even when that life is severely disabled.
Thomas Vander Woude, a Catholic father of seven, sacrificed his own life on Sept. 8 trying to save his son with Down syndrome from drowning. And around the same time Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska and mother of five, began her campaign for vice-president. Palin’s youngest son, Trig, also has Down syndrome. One of the things that makes the example of these two parents “extraordinary” is that their disabled children exist at all. More than 80 percent of children diagnosed in the womb with Down syndrome are now “terminated”—the news media’s antiseptic word for killing the innocent.
Raising a child with disabilities does not by itself qualify (or disqualify) anyone for public office. But it does demand a quiet kind of strength, wisdom, character, patience, self-sacrifice, trust in God and inconspicuous heroism. The many parents of children with special needs whom I know have discovered something important about what it means to be human. God’s invitation to love a disabled child, whose imperfections are so obvious, is his way of growing our hearts to love each other, who so often wear our own imperfections—which are just as real and just as disabling—hidden on the inside.
There are really two tragedies in every abortion: the killing of an unborn child; and the killing of an opportunity to love.
Biography, Homilies, Writings and Discourses... More